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Eat, oxen, and tell us the future

Eat, oxen, and tell us the future

DIN Phrum, the Royal astrologer at this year's Plowing Ceremony, told the oxen: "Go

and eat whatever you want, and all you need. Eat to tell us the result of the next

yield."

"It seemed to me that the animals could understand. They were really quiet and

I am quite sure they understood me."

The Royal oxen wandered untethered to eat at the golden bowls containing maize, rice,

sesame, water, alcohol and grass, and as they were doing so Phrum forsaw that 1996

would be a good year.

"I noticed this year that two of the oxen agreed with each other. They chose

the food and when they decided to eat, they ate together," Phrum said.

For the record, the oxen - after an elaborate and very religious preamble that lasted

for days - ate all the rice and maize, a tenth part of the sesame, a good portion

each of grass and water, and no alcohol.

"They said on television that there would be flood because the oxen drank water,

and epidemics because they ate some grass.

"But those people have to think before saying these stupid kinds of things.

Oxen always need water and they eat also grass. The fact they did is not a bad omen."

Phrum, 62, is said to be the only one in Cambodia who can interpret the Plowing Ceremony

- now in its third year following a 25-year interruption.

"When I took part in the last Plowing Ceremony in 1969, it was as a simple ox

guard. My chief organized everything. I did not know how it had to be done."

Phrum remembers being very worried when King Sihanouk asked him to prepare to renew

the ceremony in 1993.

"I lost weight. I was not able to sleep and I prayed a lot to help me remember

what was the ceremony was like. I am sure that the prayers helped to bring back my

memories.

"The King trusted me and with help from Buddha everything went smoothly,"

he said.

He borrowed books from a French library to help him prepare. "In the 60's, I

had a French friend who used to copy from the books of Khmer traditions. Once he

told me: 'Maybe, you will have to come and pick up in my book sometime.' He was right.

To start the ceremony again, I had to read his books," he said.

Phrum is the only one of the Royal Palace's religion and tradition section to have

survived since the Sihanouk Sangkum regime ended in 1970. He joined his grandfather

- who was a bakou Brahmanist follower - at the Royal Palace when he was just ten

years old.

Phrum smiled when asked how he predicted the future of the crop, and often closed

his eyes to concentrate while moving his arms to describe the movement of the oxen.

"The ceremony is also celebrated in other Buddhist countries. The ceremony is

a mix between Brahmanism and Buddhism," he said.

The ceremony takes place on the first day of the decreasing moon in the month of

Pisak (May), the first month of rain. "On that particular day, all the farmers

have to hit their fields with a mattock at least once. It is dah dei - wake up the

land."

The ground on which the ceremony takes place - in front of the Royal Museum - symbolized

the rice field and is reserved for four days and three nights before big day.

The bakou prepare the ground through their prayers. Five of them sit, not moving,

alone in houses built in five points around the field. The house facing east is the

most important "though I don't know why that is myself," said Phrum. "They

ask the spirits to be favorable to the rice field."

During the three days before the ceremony, six holy oxen are kept inside a perimeter,

enclosed by ropes. Twice a day, morning and evening, the bakou sprinkle animals with

holy water.

"Everything hereditary. To have good oxen we select them according to their

genes. We try to find oxen that have been reared by good people, people well educated

and with humanity," he said.

On the day of the ceremony, the "chief of the dragon" - this year CPP's

honorary president and former head of state Heng Samrin, in the absence of most of

the Royal family - paid his respects to the bakou before leading the oxen in a symbolic

plowing of the field.

Samrin led the oxen around three times, himself holding an ornate yolk behind them.

"The three furrows represent the Buddha, the Buddha's lessons and the monks,"

he said.

"The ceremony has to be held by the King or some one from the Royal family,

Phrum said.

Asked about Samrin replacing the King this year, Phrum would not say whether the

ceremony would be as efficient. "Everything is based on the person, whether

he is a good personality or not," he said.

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